COLUMBIA — The Missouri Tigers have the number six on their minds. On Aug. 31. they will begin their quest for six wins — and bowl eligibility.
Here are six lesser-known athletes who will play a big part in Missouri's postseason quest:
Shane Ray, defensive end
They call it the "Money Package."
Kony Ealy moves inside to defensive tackle from his usual defensive end spot, and Shane Ray substitues in at defensive end. The package is designed to do one thing: sack the quarterback.
With Ealy’s unique ability to rush from the edge or interior of the line, Missouri is able to bring in Ray, who has made it tough for coaches to keep him off the field with his improvement throughout the spring and fall.
“I don’t want to talk about it; I want to let him show it on the field,” Ealy said. “He’s a lot farther along than I was a year ago.
“He can handle the situation that we’re putting him in.”
In 2012, Missouri ranked third to last in the Southeastern Conference with 21 sacks. And the Tigers lost Sheldon Richardson, their most productive defensive lineman, to the NFL.
So the team has to get a bit creative with its pass rush in 2012. The "Money Package" could provide that creativity as long as Ray is up to the task.
Matt Hoch, defensive tackle
Last year was a year of transition for Matt Hoch. He changed positions from tight end to defensive tackle. He’s always been able to play on both sides of the football, dating back to high school, but playing nose tackle against SEC offensive lines takes some getting used to.
Hoch was often anonymous in 2012, overshadowed by Sheldon Richardson. He’s maintained his anonymity throughout spring practices and fall camp, despite consistently drawing praise from Pinkel.
“He’s a lot different player than he was a year ago,” Pinkel said. “It’s not even close. He’s got so much ability.”
The middle of Missouri’s defensive line will look different without Richardson, but Hoch brings a different skill set than the New York Jets’ first-round pick.
“He’s got a lot of versatility,” defensive end Kony Ealy said. “He’s 300 (pounds) solid and has a nice get-off. He’s a big body to be reckoned with. You’re going to have to double-team him, if not triple-team him.”
If he can clog up the middle, that will free the rest of Missouri’s defensive line to improve on the low sack numbers from a season ago.
John Gibson, cornerback
After a solid spring that had coaches optimistic he could start opposite E.J. Gaines, Gibson has taken a couple of steps backward this fall in the race for starting cornerback. When he got a chance to prove his worth during a scrimmage on Aug. 15, receiver — and roommate — L’Damian Washington made him look foolish on a few plays and exposed poor coverage and tackling techniques.
But Gibson has a redeeming quality: speed. The redshirt freshman from Missouri City, Texas, was a track star in high school who won first place in the 4x100 at the 2011 Junior Olympics. If he can iron out some of the mental errors and break down more consistently at the point of the tackle, he can hold his own.
“I have a better chance to compete for a job than I did last summer,” Gibson said. “I’ve got to work on my craft. Tackling is one of my weaknesses, and it’s something I’m working on right now.”
Russell Hansbrough, running back
If Henry Josey is unable to step up and be the feature back, Hansbrough will be counted on for the bulk of the carries. Marcus Murphy will also see some action in the backfield, but Hansbrough has impressed coach Gary Pinkel this fall.
“He’s lightning quick,” Pinkel said. “And he’s got some size. He’s playing really well.”
Hansbrough is only a sophomore, but so was Josey when he won All-Big 12 honors in 2011. Freshman year was tough — especially learning pass protection — but the young back said he has the offense figured out now.
“It’s a lot of work,” Hansbrough said. “We’ve got to make sure we keep our quarterbacks on their feet. Last year, I wasn’t really getting the plays, but now, I’ve got the tempo down and I’m out there going with the flow.”
Evan Boehm, center
His timing was off during the first fall scrimmage on Aug. 10. One shotgun snap flew over quarterback Maty Mauk’s head. Another two snaps were close to doing the same.
Coach Pinkel’s mantra is: “We should go through a whole season without a bad snap.” So you can imagine Boehm was in hot water after that scrimmage. But the sophomore softened the velocity of his snaps in ensuing scrimmages and hasn’t had any severe hiccups since his big miscue.
“You’ve got to refocus and say, ‘You know what, I can’t be having that anymore,’” Boehm said. “After that, I didn’t have a bad snap. You’ve got to put the ball on the belt.”
Andrew Baggett, kicker
It’s tough for coach Gary Pinkel to hide his concern for Missouri’s kicking game.
Coming into camp, punter Conner Brinser was supposed to be the unknown, with Andrew Baggett ready to take a step forward as a sophomore. But Pinkel has repeatedly praised Brinser and is still looking for consistency from his second-year kicker.
“If it isn't done properly, I'm concerned about it,” Pinkel said. “That's my job. I'm paid to be concerned.”
While Baggett’s leg is noticeably stonger, he hasn’t been accurate on a day-to-day basis throughout fall camp. He said his mental approach has been different now that he’s not competing for his starting spot, but he is still learning to keep a level head every day.
“I just worry about the kicks, not what people are saying,” Baggett said.
When it comes to kickers, Pinkel says a team doesn’t worry about them until it doesn’t have one. He’s not worried about Baggett getting things right when the season starts.
“I really think he has the chance to be a great kicker,” Pinkel said.